Sunday, February 5, 2017

Book Review: The Way of the Writer

I try to stay on top of the writing books my library acquires. This recent acquisition, The Way of the Writer, was written by an African American writer whose works I've never read. However, I would like to think that the race placed before the word "writer" could be eliminated and simply refer to him as a writer who is an African American. This concept is often presented when thinking about Christian writers - do they attempt to be a writer whose work is identified because of their religious affiliations or is their work identified because of their excellence in writing, with a side nod to their belief system? I wanted to read a book about writing where the emphasis was on the writing and not on the race or background of the writer, or on his grand accomplishments in that endeavor. Alas, the focus was more on self than on writing. Nonetheless, I was able to glean some bits of worthy observation and instruction.

I was especially encouraged by a remark made early in the book about the process of acquiring writing skills. Johnson wrote six novels before he wrote his debut novel. He observes, "authors should not publish their first novels. Writers ... should keep in mind that not being published is not failure." I would have to agree. The first novel I completed was most certainly not the best novel I have written, and perhaps I will not achieve publication until I have a manuscript that is entirely worthy.

My favorite part of the entire book was a section Johnson included on opening sentences. He presented a list selected by the editors of the American Book Review of the hundred best first lines for novels. While I didn't agree that all of them were stupendous, there were definitely some rich and powerful lines. Of course, I appreciated Dickens's first line from A Tale of Two Cities. Moreover, who wouldn't be captured by the line "Mother died today." (Camus's - The Stranger) Then there's C.S. Lewis's excellent first line in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." Or Walker's first line in The Color Purple: "You better not never tell nobody but God." The first lines in Eugenides's Middlesex and Tyler's Back When We Were Grownups actually made me want to pick up their novels without knowing anything more about them. I was amused to see the first line from Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa, a book I checked out when I first heard of it, over a decade ago, simply because he restricted his writing so that every word in the first chapter begins with the letter a, and subsequent chapters only allow the addition of words starting with a and b, then a, b, and c, etc. (I had to show that first line to my boys and tell them of that unique book.)

When speaking of plot, Johnson urges writers to identify their protagonist's deepest social fear. I believe this is the very best advice he imparted. I intend to think long and hard about what is my protagonist's greatest fear, and also, what is my own.

In another chapter, Johnson identified what he calls the "alpha narrative." This is a work where "one never has the feeling that a writer is trying to tell a story. We aren't even aware of the writer, only of the compelling world he (or she) has delivered to us." My sentiments exactly. The very best narratives are the ones you get so caught up in that you are oblivious to word choice, style, plotting, etc. - all those things writers should work at to the point that they appear seamless.

Again in speaking of the great task of sculpting the final product, Johnson writes:

"When writing well, one works very hard at creating a musical variety in sentence length, in sentence forms, and throughout a paragraph; at chopping away waste; at harmoniously blending the final sentence of one paragraph with the first sentence of the next through rhythm and rhetorical techniques; at revising until a sentence surprises and is no longer recognizable as its first-draft incarnation. These are not things most readers ... will see, nor should they, for craft should be experienced the way we do our spectacles ... as something that enables us to see while not calling attention to itself."

My biggest complaint about this writing book falls along the lines of the tail-end of this very thought. A really great book about writing would be one that teaches a writer the craft without calling attention to the teacher. Yet, this book, repeatedly emphasized the author's own personal accomplishments and abilities instead of focusing entirely on what he was trying to teach, the art of writing well. Indeed, I think he only included that list I so enjoyed because it referenced a first line from one of his own books, Middle Passage. Whenever a writer attempts to teach someone how to do what they do, I'm sure it is inevitable that they fall back on their own examples. This book felt like it was more memoir than lesson book on the craft of storytelling. Indeed, even Stephen King's book, On Writing, feels a good deal like a memoir. Still, I'm more liable to recommend King's book about writing than I am to recommend this one, sadly.


Amy Sorensen said...

Strangely enough, I am just the opposite...I like writing books that include the author because for me then it feels more personal. I want to know what the person's writing authority is, as some writing books seem like they're written by people who write writing books, you know? Even Writing Down the Bones, which I LOVE partly because it includes so much about the writer, makes me think hmmmmm...because I've never actually read a novel written by Natalie Goldberg.

I guess it's good there are both types! I just got a hold of one called How to Write Like Tolsty that I am excited to read. :)

Wendy said...

I guess I could sense my double standard because I did so enjoy reading the memoir bits of King's writing book, but without having read anything by this author, it felt a bit suspect, his constant referral to his own works.

I hope you enjoy How to Write Like Tolstoy. I reviewed it last year: and we used one of the fun writing exercises in our library writer's group meeting.